I’ve been sampling a lot of streaming shows lately from Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, etc. I used to be open to trying just about anything in the hopes of finding something that hit my sweet spot. But these days, as a genre (fantasy, scifi, action, etc.) fan, I’m usually disappointed by what I find.
Streaming has brought some welcome new opportunities for creators and showrunners, freeing them from the restrictions of pleasing advertisers and meddling network executives. Additionally, we’re seeing a larger variety of genres shows being greenlit as streaming services eagerly throw every IP they can get their hands on against the wall to see what sticks.
The downside is that 1) not every idea works, and 2) there’s a swath of shows in which all of the characters give in to their worst impulses. All the time. Because… what? The storytellers behind them can’t come up with any better stories to tell?
Sigh. Eye roll. Facepalm.
If you follow television news and history, you’ve probably heard the infamous story. Way back in the late 90s, before the dawn of “prestige TV,” HBO wanted to expand its spectrum beyond bringing Hollywood movies to your home. It wanted to produce high-profile original TV shows that audiences would be willing to pay to watch. They tried a few different approaches, leading mostly to comedies like Sex and the City, but it wasn’t until they started thinking differently about things that “pay cable” began setting itself apart.
The story goes that the exec in charge of HBO programming development adopted a rule that was considered a fresh perspective for TV. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of, “The characters in our shows don’t have to be good. But they have to be interesting.” Thus, The Sopranos was born, a story about a modern-day mafia crime family. It was filled to the brim with fascinating characters like nothing television audiences had ever seen.
Viewers were enthralled by the weekly lives of Tony Soprano and his family, despite there being no one in that family worth identifying with or cheering for. Sure, they had their pros and cons, and some of them may have managed to cause more or less “good” things to happen on occasion. But their hearts were never in the right place, they never cared about anyone outside of their family, and their moral fortitude was basically nonexistent. The show was masterfully executed, and became a high water mark for television. But it, like so many of the shows that followed in its footsteps, had no soul.
The direct result of The Sopranos’ popularity was a permanent change in the landscape of 21st Century television. TV evolved into a morally gray area that leaned increasingly toward dark gray or downright black. Over the next twenty years, the most critically acclaimed and popular shows on TV followed HBO’s successful formula.
The first real streaming show to become a hit was a prime example. House of Cards followed a morally bankrupt politician and his equally scheming and conniving wife. The point of tuning in each week was, I assume, the morbid curiosity of finding out how this twisted power couple would cheat and strategize their way out of the latest morally depraved situation they themselves caused.
Veep turned this premise on its head, showcasing another self-focused politician, but this time for almost vaudevillian-style laughs. There was nothing Selina Meyer wouldn’t do, no entitlement she would deny. Hysterically depraved comedy? Absolutely. But in any way inspiring? No.
The Walking Dead brought the novelty of a zombie apocalypse to weekly television, with a budget big enough to accommodate location shooting and gruesomely realistic undead makeup effects. But the zombies were just a force of nature; it was the living survivors who were the real evil. There were a few characters worth rooting for, but over time they were killed off for shock value, or written out because the actors got bored.
The result was a revolving door of old characters replaced by new. I made it through the first three seasons before I realized that nobody’s lives here really mattered. They were disposable and unimportant; they were Kleenex. Every devastatingly horrific thing that happened to them had to be topped by the next, until it became a predictable cycle that betrayed its meaninglessness. There was very little reason to invest in these characters’ lives, but audiences lapped up TWD anyway. Because zombies.
Mad Men was a series about advertising magnates in the 1960s, all of whom were chain-smoking, selfish, power-hungry jerks. The Shield gave us a corrupt police detective who was worse than the criminals he chased. The Americans asked us to pull for a pair of Russian spies living in America as the couple next door. At its best, the show was dynamite and unpredictable, but it ended with a message consistent to its entire run: in the real world, the bad guys win.
There are dozens more, but you get the idea. I just tried a new show a few nights ago (which prompted the article your eyeballs now linger upon). Not going to name names, but it’s a critically acclaimed series set in space. I had high hopes, but was disappointed to find the same old antiheroes going about their selfish self-interests. Sure, the potential for character development and growth was there, but I don’t know if I have the patience to wade through multiple seasons of a show just to see if a bunch of unlikable slime balls find their moral compass.
Maybe I’m just getting old.
Be that as it may, my point is that television has fallen into a spiral where characters who have a conscience are the exception, not the rule.
Look, I don’t require my TV protagonists to be shining examples of virtue. Real people are complicated; everyone makes good and bad decisions. Good characters should struggle with making the right decision — because doing the right thing is never easy.
What television seems to have forgotten is that the real world does have a lot of decent people in it who genuinely care about others and want to help them. We don’t all give in to our worst human instincts, all of the time. So why does TV find it so hard portray these kinds of people in realistic ways?
The last 20 years have given us some shows that got it right. Every character on Lost (my favorite of all time) was flawed and damaged and deeply imperfect. Yet they all, some from the start, some later on, demonstrated a desire deep down (some a lot deeper than others — looking at you, Ben) to try and do what was right. They all failed and succeeded to varying degrees, but every one of them, eventually, sought redemption. And that made them easy to care about and invest in.
Battlestar Galactica was a very grown-up show that mixed heady scifi, powerful drama, and a killer premise with a wild assortment of characters, some good, some bad, but most falling in between. There were enough of the good ones, or the ones striving to be good (yeah, even Baltar by the end) that it made for some of the most powerful and compelling drama I’ve ever watched.
Then there’s the biggest HBO hit ever — and in fact, the most popular television show of all time. I’m talking, of course, about Game of Thrones. GoT was an odd bag, and I never quite knew how to feel about it. I still don’t. Its most wicked characters seemed to come out on top the most, and it forced us to watch its heroes being dragged through hell and back over and over again. Some of its morally strongest characters were summarily dumped, seemingly for the crime of being too good to be interesting.
There were plenty of of virtuous characters worth rooting for, such as Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen (I still side with Dany; she didn’t betray King’s Landing, the show’s writers betrayed her), Brienne of Tarth, Samwell Tarly, Tyrion Lannister, and others. Some started horribly but became rewardingly heroic and noble by the end. I’m thinking of bratty Sansa Stark’s growth into a mature, noble leader who genuinely cared about her subjects. Or Jorah Mormont’s transformation from a man who betrayed his family’s honor by selling slaves, into a loyal knight, guardian, and trusted advisor to his queen, even giving his life to save hers in the end. They were both among my favorites, because we got to watch them rise above bad choices and dreadful circumstances, to become shining examples of kindness, generosity, and love.
On the other hand, the show overflowed with some of the most loathsome, irredeemable villains of all time. And boy, did it the camera love them. Monsters like Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton, Petyr Baelish, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister (almost everyone with the last name Lannister qualified), Stannis Baratheon, and others were devils that the show soaked itself in the wickedness of.
Then there were the aforementioned genuinely virtuous characters who the show reveled in killing off in as many horrible ways as possible. Robb Stark had to watch his pregnant wife murdered in front of him before his own life was snuffed out. Young Tommen Baratheon took his own life due to a broken heart. Feisty Lyanna Mormont went out in a blaze of glory, taking down a giant in battle. Oberyn Martell, a rogue with a heart of gold, had his eyes gouged out and his skull crushed. (Fine, I admit it. The Pedro Pascal man crush is real. Leave me alone.) And sweet Moses, let’s not even get into the fate of poor little Shireen Baratheon.
Characters should screw up and make mistakes. They’re not believable or relatable if they don’t. It’s one of the things that makes us care about them — as long as they care that they got it wrong. Not every character is going to set out to do things for the right reasons. Sometimes the best characters of all start out as unlikable jerks, but over time they see the light and become heroes of great conscience. G’Kar from Babylon 5 and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer come to mind.
On the other hand, televised fiction can also give us characters that go in the opposite direction, such as Walter White from Breaking Bad, who went from tired dad-slash-high school teacher to calculating, vicious crime lord. In his case, it was primarily done as a psychological character study. And there’s value to some of these kinds of stories and what they can teach us about the human condition. But I never walk away from them feeling like I’ve given away hours of my time on earth to something worthwhile.
It’s the characters that grow on a fundamental level, the ones who at least try to be better than they once were, whether they succeed or not, that resonate strongest. Because we want to be like them. We all, in our heart of hearts, yearn to rise above our own innate baseness and become the best version of ourselves.
So call me old fashioned, but I like characters worth caring about, investing in, and watching grow. Everyone has something to atone for, whether justified or not, and if not a single one of the characters in a story cares about finding the better angels of their nature…
Well then, how do you tell the protagonist from the antagonist? What does it even matter who’s good and who’s evil? If there’s no difference, I can’t force myself to care about anything that happens to them.
But hope’s not lost. Disney+ is giving us some compelling drama from likeable characters on prestige shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision. Both of which, by the way, center on characters that others around them might consider to be bad guys, but who we root for anyway because we know that they have good hearts.
Apple TV+’s For All Mankind is an enthralling, if at times painfully slow-paced, drama about a world where the U.S.-vs.-Russia space race of the 50s and 60s never ended. It’s got morally grey characters out the wazoo, but it’s clear that they all know right from wrong, and want to do more of the former than the latter. They screw up all the time, because they’re human. But they try, and that makes their journeys worth following.
Star Trek: Discovery has its share of detractors, but it’s also a massive hit for Paramount+ that’s given birth to a veritable Trek renaissance. Personally, I love it, mainly because it tells breaks with Trek tradition and tells a serialized story. It also boasts some of the most compelling characters the franchise has ever known. The primary protagonist, Michael Burnham, made a really bad call in the show’s debut, which resulted in a war that nearly destroyed the Federation. She was stripped of rank and sent to prison. Fortunately, events conspired to bringer her aboard the U.S.S. Discovery, where she found redemption — and destiny. Each of the other main characters has their share of issues, but they rise above them to come together and save the day. So what if it’s a cliche for the good guys to always win? There are prices that are paid for those victories, and optimism is one of the reasons Star Trek is among the world’s most enduring franchises.
There are a few other examples, but for every hero worth rooting for, there are two antiheroes that TV wants us to watch just to see what terrible thing they’ll do next. What they’ll do that we can’t — maybe that’s the appeal of these shows.
It’s like the Punisher. The quintessential Marvel antihero is basically what happens when you combine a serial killer with a superhero. He murders, frequently and with extreme prejudice, but he only kills bad guys. He never, ever contemplates hanging up his machine guns and trying to be a real hero. The Punisher is a fan-favorite, but I’ve never enjoyed his brand of bullet-spraying, blood-letting vigilantism.
I don’t think I ever will, and I’m okay with that. To each their own.
But Hollywood, could you maybe swing the pendulum back toward the light a little more? It feels like TV is drowning in selfish, duplicitous jerkwads.